The Mets think Josh Thole is raw defensively.  Here’s a look at some defensive numbers for Thole, along with other catchers the Mets might use instead.

The Mets have identified catcher as one area they would like to upgrade for 2010 and have already made two moves in that regard, signing free agents Chris Coste and Henry Blanco.  And they still may be in the market to acquire a catcher, with names like Rod Barajas and Bengie Molina tossed about as potential targets.

Allegedly, the club was unhappy with the way Omir Santos handled the pitching staff and they feel that top prospect Josh Thole is not ready for the full-time job, either.  Seemingly, the plan is to trade Santos and have Coste serve as Thole’s mentor in Triple-A.  Blanco will be the club’s backup in the majors with whichever new catcher they acquire being the starter.

Personally, I think a Thole-Blanco tandem is the way to go.

First, let’s see if we can quantify catcher’s defense.  Hitting stats are more widely accepted than defensive stats and catcher is the toughest position in the park to get a good grip on from the numbers.  UZR does not even begin to rank catchers, which puts us off in a rough start.  Let’s start by looking at some traditional defensive numbers.

Name Innings Fldg % PB CS%
Rod Barajas 974.1 .991 6 34
Henry Blanco 508.0 1.000 2 40
Bengie Molina 1042.0 .995 4 23
Omir Santos 680.1 .994 3 30
Josh Thole (AA) .992 9 30
Thole (Majors) 127.1 .993 3 33

Thole caught 89 games in Binghamton.  If we multiply that by eight, we get a rough approximation of 712 innings.  Regardless, we can see he does an adequate job in two of these three categories but has a big problem with passed balls.  On the flip side, Henry Blanco has the best fielding percentage, the best caught stealing percentage and the fewest passed balls.  On the surface he really seems to deserve his strong defensive reputation.

But none of this gets to the Mets’ alleged problem of handling the pitching staff.  One way is to check and see what the slash lines were with each catcher behind the plate.  Let’s do another chart, this one comparing the catcher versus his team’s overall rate.

Rod Barajas .266 .328 .427 2.41 .270 .339 .434 2.14
Henry Blanco .266 .339 .418 2.11 .258 .333 .406 1.97
Bengie Molina .239 .316 .379 2.22 .236 .314 .372 2.23
Omir Santos .263 .342 .417 1.65 .264 .342 .418 1.67
Josh Thole .249 .313 .439 1.60 .256 .328 .424 1.71

Since Thole was only in the majors in September, his team totals are only from September, which explains the differences between Santos and Thole’s team numbers.  I also threw in SO/BB ratio, hoping it might shed some light.  There are not a ton of differences to be found here, but note how Barajas put up better numbers than the team in all four categories.  Also, with Thole behind the plate, opponents slugged better and his SO/BB numbers were poorer than the team.

Since I do not seem to be getting anywhere, I decided to do some research to see what others have found in the area of catcher defense.  Two posts stood out and I want to link to them now.

Back in 2000, Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus investigated catchers’ game calling abilities in a detailed post.  The bottom result is this:

“Though we would colloquially say that game-calling doesn’t exist, it’s more accurate to say that if there is a true game-calling ability, it lies below the threshold of detection. There is no statistical evidence for a large game-calling ability, but that doesn’t preclude that a small ability. For example, a genuine game-calling ability that reduces a pitcher’s ERA by 0.01, resulting in a savings of about 1.6 runs per year for the entire team and could be masked by the statistical variance in the sample size we have to work with. Players would need to play thousands more games than they actually do to have enough data to successfully detect such a skill statistically.”

Perhaps there is a selection sample bias at work here.  This study examined major league catchers over a 17-year period.  But perhaps catchers don’t advance (or stay) in the majors unless their game-calling ability meets a certain level.  So, we can be charitable and say that the Mets alleged reading of Santos is that he does not meet the qualities necessary to be a major league backstop.

The second study that I found interesting was done by Devil Fingers at Driveline Mechanics.  This post started with the assumption that game calling abilities were negligible and instead focused on SB/CS, WP/PB, throwing errors and fielding errors.  Devil Fingers said:

“[T]he basic idea is to 1) choose what events you’re going to deal with, 2) determine each catchers performance with respect to league average, and 3) decide the run value of each event.”

Basically, 10 runs equals a win.  Devil Fingers concocted this to use in a WAR-type statistic.  Here are his run values for our catchers:

Barajas: 4.2
Blanco: 5.7
Molina: -3.4
Santos: 2.4
Thole: -0.6

So, if we add this to the WAR on FanGraphs (which has no catcher’s defense), we get the following offense + defense number:

Barajas: 1.2
Blanco: 1.8
Molina: 1.5
Santos: 1.2
Thole: 0.3

Molina has the highest WAR of any of our choices, but he is also going to command the most salary of the group.  Would you rather pay minimum wage to Santos/Thole or what Barajas or Molina could fetch on the free agent market?  Molina’s last contract was three years for $16 million while Barajas earned $2.5 million last year.

Another factor to consider is who is likely to improve?  Barajas is 34, Molina is 35, Santos will be 29 next April and Thole is 23.

When you consider offense, defense, age and salary, if these are the choices for the Mets than Thole should be the starter.  It will cost at least six times as much to bring in Barajas and 12 times as much for Molina.  And they are simply not going to provide six or 12 times the value.  And that’s assuming the best-case scenario for the older catchers – that they show no drop-off from last year.  It also assumes that there is no improvement in Thole.

Molina, and to a lesser extent Barajas, give name recognition and the illusion that the Mets are doing something to upgrade the position.  Both of those players are likely to hit more home runs than Thole.  But Thole will contribute more in getting on base and the difference in defense (assuming one exists and with Molina that is a dangerous assumption) simply will not be worth the extra money.

We still don’t know for sure how much money the Mets have at their disposal this offseason.  But I would rather that they spend it on a SP or OF (and dump Francoeur!) than go for a questionable, non-certifiable upgrade behind the plate like Molina.  Thole’s defensive problems are overblown but his ability to make contact and get on base are real and the Mets should focus on what he actually brings to the table rather than the perception of what he takes off when deciding who to start in 2010.